Since we were on the subject of electronic and computerized vehicle protection systems, it seemed like a logical move to begin a discussion of another long-standing and not universally beloved vehicle subsystem—this one ostensibly purposed to save us from ourselves, or at least our vehicles from “the nut behind the wheel”.
To say that the technologies employed in this quest have had mixed results, at best, would lean a little toward the generous side.
What started as often a very rudimentary electric buzzer, activated by just a couple of critical conditions related to door and ignition key position, eventually morphed into an exhaustive array of monitored components—each with their very own distinctive tone!
We now have warnings for everything from low tire pressure and vital fluid levels to electrical system malfunction, and most anything one can think of in between. It got so complex, manufacturers finally lumped all of these monitored systems into one centralized display with one tone, and a lighted digital display listing the offending components, circuits or subsystems. With a mighty ding (or dong) you would then be reminded of low windshield washer fluid level, how many miles until an empty fuel tank or until the next recommended oil service, the need to have other routine maintenance performed, or a host of other less-than-life-threatening events in progress every time you started off for a drive.
There were also a lot of interesting—if not obnoxiously implemented—detours and dead-ends along the way, too.
From my perspective as a technician and shop owner, the big crux with these devices has been: How critical they are to the to the actual operation of the vehicle, and how easy they are to be defeated—as in SILENCED.
In the kinder and gentler days of yore, the tacky and equally volumetric warning buzzer could be accessed with ease—sometimes without even removing the lower dash panel—and simply unplugged; with no untoward results to the rest of the vehicle. Disconnecting, or otherwise rendering an interior audible warning device inoperative on a modern vehicle is pretty much the polar opposite.
A friend of mine recently acquired a relatively late-model M/Benz E320, and came to hate the in-cabin warning buzzer (yes, they have come full-circle, apparently, with regard to employed tone) almost immediately. He’s a pretty tolerant guy, so when he described the aggravation he was experiencing with this work of the Devil, I understood why he just had to take an immediate time-out and silence the thing. I’m pretty sure he didn’t know what he was getting into when he started dismantling the dash, piece by piece, until he zeroed in on the exact location of the offending unit. It turned out to be soldered into—as in being a completely integrated component part of—the instrument cluster electronic motherboard! After careful consideration of the ramifications of his next move, he went the B.F.I.
(Brute Force and Ignorance) route and CRUSHED it with a pair of slip-joint pliers!
From my objective standpoint, that sounded like a risky move. What if such an action inhibited some other essential process from being accomplished? It would have been hard to correct the damage done, and another motherboard would have to be sourced—complete with fully operational warning buzzer! Talk about potential for adding insult to injury!
Fortunately, the only effect of his action was the desired one; and several hours later, he was able to experience newfound sanity from behind the wheel.
Not that all attempts at in-cabin warning devices have been equally useless. There have been a few exceptions, in my opinion. The manufacturer often referred to them as a “chime”—a term that actually had some merit.
Who could forget the “tinkle-tinkle” that wafted pleasantly from behind the dash of earlier Subaru models? So pleasant as to be missing a sense of urgency that might have actually been appropriate, it was.
Or how about the key-in door-open three-note melody that earlier VW models came equipped with. It was the first three notes of the English Hunting Call, for heaven’s sake! That seemed like a very positive way to encourage the driver to get in and get on with it.
Then, of course, what I consider the crowning achievement of audible warning-dom: The synthesized vocal warning! A customer of mine referred to the “voice” in his Chrysler K-Car as “Guido”—a sarcastic take on the nickname of the then-President of Chrysler.
I think auto manufacturers really missed a great opportunity by not running a little more with the vocal warning. Yeah, “Guido” was a fairly boring take; but why stop there and say that’s as good as it gets? Why not offer a wide variety of voices and approaches to warning the driver? Want to be reminded to shut the door by a caricature nagging female voice, saturated with attitude? Might even prompt the driver to open the door at odd times just to hear her “go off”! Not your cup of tea? How about a sexy male voice telling you that you’ve forgotten to turn off the headlights? You might find yourself leaving them on purposely just to see if he still cares enough to remind you, yet again—without a hint of impatience!
Or maybe record your own vocal warnings. The possibilities are really endless; and in an era where people are trying to find ways to inject personality into their expensive and equally soulless appliances, it seems like a no-brainer for manufacturers to provide such an option.
You read it first RIGHT HERE, in the annals of “Memoirs of an Independent Repair Shop Owner”. All rights reserved. Void where prohibited by law. Member TTAC. You know how to contact me.
As an ASE Certified L1 Master Tech, Phil ran a successful independent repair shop on the West Coast for close to 20 years, working over a decade before that at both dealer and independent repair shops. He is presently semi-retired from the business of auto repair, but still keeps his hand in things as a consultant and in his personal garage.